By Swami Harshananda
Sometimes transliterated as: Sri Saradadevi, ZrI ZAradAdevI, shri shaaradaadevi
Whether country has produced many great women or great women have made the country great, there is no gainsaying the fact that Śāradādevi, the immaculate spouse of the godman, Rāmakṛṣṇa, was great in her own right. Śrī Śāradādevī lived from A. D. 1853-1920. As a daughter, as a sister, as a wife, as a mother and as a spiritual teacher, she has left an indelible mark on the history of not only Indian women, but also on that of the great women of the world.
Though born and brought up in the rural setting of the country of the nineteenth century, she could rise to the level of a goddess, adored by millions all over the world who speaks volumes of her greatness. An earnest study of her life is not only fascinating but also educative of the ancient values that have shaped its womanhood.
- 1 Angelic Visitations
- 2 The Advent
- 3 The Little Bride and the Great Groom
- 4 In Blissful Company
- 5 Womanhood to Godhood
- 6 Flow of Events
- 7 The Master Departs
- 8 Maiden Pilgrimage
- 9 Penury and Privation
- 10 Domestic Entanglements
- 11 Spiritual Ministrations
- 12 Pañcatapas and Visions
- 13 Mother’s House
- 14 Pilgrimage to Rāmeśvaram
- 15 Mahāsamādhi
- 16 Final Message
- 17 Epilogue
- 18 References
In the history of the world, the advent of spiritual giants has often been presaged by strange experiences to their parents. It happened to the parents of Kṛṣṇa, Buddha and Jesus in the ancient days. It even happened to the parents of Rāmakṛṣṇa and Vivekānanda in the recent past. It also happened in the case of Śāradādevī’s parents too. Rāmacandra Mukherji and Śyāmāsundarī-devī of the village of Jayarāmbāṭī which is situated about 100 kms. or 60 miles to the west of Calcutta in West Bengal, were a pious couple living happily within their meager means of livelihood.
Once, when Rāmacandra was dozing off after lunch, he saw an exquisitely beautiful girl of golden complexion replete with ornaments, in his dream. She put her tiny hands round his neck and announced that she was coming to his house. A few days later, Śyāmāsundarī while returning from her native village Sihore on a hot afternoon, rested under a Bilva tree. Suddenly she heard the jingling sound of small bells and saw a dark little girl of great beauty descending from the tree and embracing her. She lost her consciousness. When she awoke, she felt that she had conceived.
These two supernatural experiences show that the child that would be born to them later, was a goddess, the former representing Lakṣmī and the latter Kālī, both in one, since they are the two aspects of the same Divine Being. This is further confirmed if it is noted that Rāmakṛṣṇa’s parents too had similar experiences, the father of Viṣṇu and the mother of Śiva.
The divine girl-child was ushered into this world on the 22nd December 1853, as the eldest daughter of the family. She was named ‘Śāradāmaṇi,’ with astrological apprehensions. It means chosen to ward off all evil and bring prosperity and being ‘Thākurmaṇi’ which means ‘Jewel of a goddess’.
The child Śāradā with her charming appearance and disarming innocence, was the darling of the parents and villagers. Though she was a little reserved by nature, she liked the dolls of Lakṣmī and Kālī. As she grew, she started helping her parents in the household chores and also caring for the younger brothers. Often, she would act as the judge in cases of quarrels and disputes among the children of the village, because of her sagacity. Collecting the grass for the cattle, helping in cooking were some of the common duties assigned to her.
The mother instinct in her, which later on bloomed into universal Motherhood, was clearly manifested during a terrible famine that once raged in Jayarāmbāṭī and the surrounding areas. The little Śāradā would often be seen fanning the hot food served to the hungry souls who used to swarm her house where her father had organised a community kitchen.
The Little Bride and the Great Groom
Religion has placed before man two royal ways of life, each of which, if followed sincerely, can lead to the ultimate goal of life, viz., mokṣa or liberation. They are the:
- Pravṛttimārga - It is the path of activism, the householder’s life
- Nivṛttimārga - It is the path of withdrawal, the sanyāsin’s or the monk’s life
The country has produced great spiritual leaders who were either householders or monks in the past. The solitary exception to this is Rāmakṛṣṇa who realized God first and then married, of his own accord, and yet led a life of utter renunciation and total dedication to the service of the suffering souls. He was much more than a householder and a monk, an ativarṇāśramin, who could be an ideal for both.
Śāradā was destined to be the divine consort of such a divine soul. When Candrādevi and Rāmeśvar heard that their dear ‘Gadāi’ had gone stark mad, they were naturally very much concerned. At their earnest entreaties, Rāmakṛṣṇa returned to Kāmārpukur, his native village. To their pleasant surprise they found him to be perfectly normal.
Even then, not prepared to take any risk, they secretly started searching for a suitable bride, thinking that would prevent him from becoming ‘mad’ again. When they were utterly frustrated in their efforts, Rāmakṛṣṇa himself asked them to go to Rāmacandra Mukheijī’s house at Jayarāmbāṭi where there was a bride specially marked for him. According to an oral tradition, the baby Śāradā, on an earlier occasion, had pointed towards the boy Gadādhar from among the boys who had gathered, as her future husband, when jokingly asked by the village women.
The search did prove to be highly successful. Everything was found to be not only right but also extremely auspicious, except that the bride was hardly six years old whereas the groom was twenty-three. The marriage went off in May 1859 fairly smoothly. Rāmakṛṣṇa then returned to Dakṣiṇeśvar to plunge once again into further spiritual adventures. The little bride continued her life in the same old fashion at her village house.
In Blissful Company
Rāmakṛṣṇa returned to Kāmārpukur again in A. D. 1867 and stayed there for a few months. At this time, he called Śāradā to live with him, specifically to train her for her future life. Being fourteen now, she was old enough to understand things. Rāmakṛṣṇa taught her, not only how to pray and meditate but also about the ephemeral nature of the world and worldly life. However, he also took care to train her in the performance of all the domestic duties, including the way to behave with various types of persons.
In later years, recalling this period of her life, Śāradādevi’ used to say that she had always felt as if a pitcher of ambrosia had been kept in her heart. The bliss and the peace she then experienced were beyond expression. Rāmakṛṣṇa returned to Dakṣiṇeśvar soon after.
Womanhood to Godhood
After the demise of Rāṇi Rāsamaṇi who built the Dakṣiṇeśvar Kālī temple campus, Mathurnāth Biśvās, her son-in-law and trusted lieutenant, had taken over the management of the temple and the guardianship of Rāmakṛṣṇa. At his earnest entreaties, Rāmakṛṣṇa undertook a long pilgrimage along with him. Soon after this, Mathur passed away.
Śāradādevi was now eighteen. She was spending her days in the fond expectation of the call from Dakṣiṇeśvar which, however, never came. Unable to put up with the rampant rumor that the village gossips bandied about regarding Rāmakṛṣṇa’s mental condition, one night she arrived at Dakṣiṇeśvar unannounced in March 1872 along with her father, trudging all the way.
Contrary to her worries and fears, Rāmakṛṣṇa received her with cordiality and warmth and even immediately arranged for her treatment since she had fallen sick on the way. She was now at peace. Soon after her arrival, Rāmakṛṣṇa asked her one day whether she had come to pull him down from spiritual heights to mundane depths. She instantly replied that her only purpose in her life was to serve him and be of help in his spiritual endeavors.
Another day, while massaging his feet, Śāradā in her turn asked him how he looked upon her. He spontaneous replied like the Divine Mother in the temple, the earthly mother in the Nahabat and she who was serving him now, were all the same. Days passed by, with Rāmakṛṣṇa going frequently into his ecstatic moods called samādhi and Sāradā serving him and Candrādevī devotedly and meticulously. One day, known as the Phalahāriṇī Kālīpujā day, Rāmakṛṣṇa made all the preparations for the worship of Soḍaśī, installed Śāradādevi on the consecrated wooden seat meant for the goddess and worshiped her with all the ingredients and ritualistic procedures.
Almost from the beginning of the worship she was in a super conscious state. At the end, Rāmakṛṣṇa offered his rosary at her feet, symbolizing the total surrender of all his spiritual attainments, she was in deep samādhi, which lasted for quite a long time. After coming down to the normal plane of consciousness, she walked out of the room majestically with extreme grace. This event, now well-known as the Soḍaśīpujā in the annals of the Ramakrishna Order, marks a very significant stage in her life.
Apart from the rousing of the universal motherly spirit in her, she automatically became the possessor of all the spiritual wealth that her divine spouse had acquired over the years through superhuman efforts. Thus, Śāradādevi, the spouse of Rāmakṛṣṇa, became the Holy Mother or just the Mother. It is just like the denotation of Paramahaṅsa to Rāmakṛṣṇa.
Flow of Events
The Holy Mother lived here continuously for about thirteen years at Dakṣiṇeśvar with occasional short breaks when she used to go to Jayarāmbāṭi. These years proved to be hectic in every sense of the term. Apart from taking care of Candrādevī, Rāmakṛṣṇa’s mother, who lived with him till her death in A. D. 1876 she had to do all the household work including cooking food for the ever-increasing number of devotees of her divine husband, who was now popularly called as Thākur or the Master.
During this period, in one of her sojourns to and from Jayarāmbāṭī, probably during her third visit in A. D. 1877, she had to encounter a robber and his wife in the forest area, since she had got separated from the group and lost her way. Her great presence of mind, fearlessness and universal love made her address them as ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’ thereby melting their hearts. On learning of her predicament, the couple reciprocated her filial love by taking care of her for the night and leading her to the group the next day.
A severe bout of almost a fatal illness of dysentery from which she recovered due to the simple remedy suggested by the goddess Siriihavāhinī of Jayarāmbāṭi and the unceremonious exit of Hṛday due to his rude behavior towards her, are the other events worth mentioning here.
The Master Departs
Just as Rāmakṛṣṇa, the Great Master, had predicted that his departure from earthly existence was fast approaching, he contracted throat-cancer around September 1885 and was shifted to Calcutta, to a garden-house at Kāśīpur, which was quite spacious and airy. The Holy Mother also shifted there and took upon herself the duty of preparing the diet and feeding him.
The young disciples under the leadership of Narendra took charge of the nursing, round the clock. One of these days, the Master, intently looking at the Holy Mother, commanded her in spite of her protests, to continue his work of spiritual ministration. After choosing a day and time for his final departure, the Great Master shuffled off the mortal coil. It was on the 16th August 1886 around 1:00 A.M.
Though some strange experiences had prepared her mind for this final departure, she did feel intensely the sorrow of separation. However, when the Master appeared before her in a vision and assured her that he had only gone ‘from one room to another’ she was consoled.
To assuage her feelings and divert her mind, a pilgrimage to Vṛndāban or Bṛndāvan, in Uttar Pradesh, a place intimately associated with the life of Lord Kṛṣṇa, was arranged. Some women disciples of the Master and Yogen accompanied her. During this pilgrimage, not only did she feel a sense of utter peace and joy, but also experienced samādhi quite frequently. She prayed intensely to the Lord to eradicate from her mind, the tendency to find fault with others. Her later life has proved amply how this prayer of hers had been answered. Yogen received spiritual initiation from her here as her first disciple at the command of the Master to both of them. After visiting a few other places she returned to Calcutta by August 1887.
Penury and Privation
Even God made himself a Vāmana or a dwarf while begging from the emperor Bali. So begging from others makes one small in the eyes of others. Citing this as an example, the Master had asked the Holy Mother to live in his ancestral home at Kāmārpukur, after his passing away without being under anyone’s obligation. Soon after returning to Calcutta, the Mother shifted to Kāmārpukur and started living there. Except for some paddy grown in the ancestral property, there was nothing else to support her. Rice, without even a pinch of salt, prepared after de-husking paddy and cooking, was the only food she had. Later on, she started growing a few vegetables in the backyard by dint of her own physical labor.
Though she was contented and at peace, one thing that often distressed her was that she could not bathe in the Gaṅgā river. One day she suddenly saw with her wide open eyes that the Master had come there and suddenly the river Gaṅgā sprang from his feet and started flowing in torrents. This vision satiated her desire by showing that the Master was everything. According to the scriptures, the river Gaṅgā originated from the feet of Lord Viṣṇu in his incarnation as Vāmana. Her extreme poverty and privation, however, did not last long. Very soon, news of her miserable condition reached the devotees of the Master at Calcutta and they made some arrangements for her comfortable stay. At their earnest request, she shifted there and started living there till her final departure from this world.
Ever since the Master’s departure, the pilgrimage to Vṛndāban and the privations at Kāmārpukur, Holy Mother’s mind was frequently soaring to great spiritual heights. It was often difficult to bring it down to the mundane plane. But a lot of work assigned to her by the Great Master was yet to be accomplished. So, some worldly peg or post was needed to fasten her mind to this plane and prevent its flying away.
Through a couple of visions, the Master showed her a girl whom he called, ‘Yogamāyā’ and asked her to fix her mind on her so as to prevent it from flying too high or away. This girl was Rādhu, the daughter of Abhaycaraṇ who died prematurely. His wife Surabālā was stark mad. Hence, the responsibility of bringing up that child devolved on the Mother. By pinning her affection on Rādhu, the Mother made it a prop for sustaining her life in this world, for the good of the many. Apart from the responsibility of Rādhu and her mad mother, the Holy Mother often got involved in the brother's family affairs whose profanity knew no bounds.
Though these worldly ties and responsibilities kept her busy in a way, her spiritual sublimity never diminished, like the river Gaṅgā is never polluted by anything floating in it. Special mention must be made here of an incident at Gayā to where the Holy Mother had gone on a pilgrimage since the Master, who could not go himself, had commanded her to do so.
There she saw a well-established monastery where the sanyāsins were provided with good accommodation and food. The contrast between this and the poverty-stricken wandering monks of the Great Master, whom she considered as her children, affected her so much that she prayed to the Master intensely with tears in her eyes to provide her children with similar comforts. Later developments which culminated in the establishment of the Ramakrishna Math at Belur were answer to her prayers.
If compassion and mercy are divine qualities, the Divine Mother is the very personification of the same. The one who had refused to take the responsibility of continuing the Master’s work of saving the souls, later relented to such an extent that even the vilest of sinners were not turned away at her gate. Anyone who addressed her as ‘Mother!’ would immediately find a place at her feet and feel the warmth of the Mother’s love and the security of her protection. Monks, householders, children, fallen women, even criminals, succeeded in finding spiritual shelter at her feet.
Her method of spiritual ministration was unique in that all formalities were transcended and infinite love alone triumphed. The disciples would feel a sense of instant upliftment. Many disciples who saw her for the first time had felt and recognized her as having seen her earlier in a dream or in some other mysterious way. She had to pay a heavy price in the form of physical suffering for her liberality. Her attendants and associates had found her doing japa at dead of night for the benefit of those whom she had accepted as disciples, but who had forgotten even the mantra given to them. The Great Master himself had taught her various mantras as well as the modes of imparting them.
Pañcatapas and Visions
Another important incident of her life concerning her own austerities needs to be mentioned here. When she was living in the garden-house of Nīlāmbar Bābu on the bank of the river Gaṅgā, near the present Belur Math, the Head Quarters of the Ramakrishna Order, in A. D. 1893 she performed the Pañcatapas or the ‘Austerity of the Five Fires’ along with Yogin Mā, a disciple of the Master and a life-long companion of hers.
On the roof of the house, four blazing fires were prepared, with the fiercely burning sun as the fifth fire. Both of them used to sit in the midst of these five fires and perform japa till sunset. This was done for seven consecutive days. During the same period of her stay here that she had a unique vision of Rāmakṛṣṇa entering the river Gaṅgā and getting dissolved in it. Narendra quickly following and sprinkling that water on a large crowd that had gathered there was the next scene. It was after this vision that she gave permission to Vivekananda to go to America.
Ever since the Holy Mother arrived in Calcutta for a permanent stay and started living in the houses of the Master’s devotees and sometimes in houses taken temporarily on rent a great need was being felt by Svāmi Śāradānanda, on whose shoulders the responsibility of taking care of her rested.
By raising funds including borrowals, he managed to build a spacious and beautiful building in the Baghbazaar area of Calcutta. He wrote his immortal work Śrirāmakrsna Lilā-prasañga. here. The sale of this book were partly used in repaying the loans. On the first floor was the shrine for the worship of Rāmakṛṣṇa where the Holy Mother also lived. Her entourage also stayed in the same floor. She entered this new house on the 23rd May 1909 and lived there till the end of her life. The ground-floor of the building also housed the office of the Udhodhan, the Beṅgālī monthly journal of the Ramakrishna Order started by Vivekananda in A. D. 1899. Hence it has also come to be known as the ‘Udhodhan House’. The monks also lived in the same ground floor.
Pilgrimage to Rāmeśvaram
On Vivekānanda’s triumphant return from the West in 1897, his old friends, associates and admirers at Madras pressed him to send a sanyāsin to continue his work of spreading the message. Accordingly he sent Svāmi Rāmakṛṣṇānanda to Madras where he started a center, now well-known as the Sri Ramakrishna Math at Mylapore.
Towards the end of February 1911, Rāmakṛṣṇānanda organised a trip for the Holy Mother to Rāmeśvaram, the famous place of pilgrimage. The Mother stayed at Madras for a few days and also gave initiation. It was surprising to discover that language was no barrier for her communicating with the local people. At Rāmeśvaram she had the rare privilege of worshiping the Śivaliñga in the temple with 108 golden bilva leaves with her own hands. She is also said to have remarked that the Śivaliṅga was just as it had been established by her earlier as Sītā in the Rāma-incarnation.
She also visited the Ramakrishna Ashrama at Bangalore during the same period, March 24 to 26, 1911 before returning to Calcutta. Later in 1912, she visited Kāśī for the third time. This was her last pilgrimage.
Apart from aging factors, the ever-increasing domestic responsibilities, physical strain of giving dīkṣā or initiation to a very large number of seekers and the subtle taking over of the burdens of their sins told on her health adversely. As a result, her body began to show signs of breaking down.
By the time the doctors discovered the nature of the disease known as Kālā-azār, it was too late. A few days before her final departure, she was found to have completely detached her mind from Rādhu and her baby, thereby indicating the abandonment of the prop that had held her to sustain her physical life here.
Now, none could hold her back from returning to her Master any more. She gave up the physical frame on the 20th July 1920. Her body was carried in a long procession and was cremated on the bank of the river Gaṅgā in the Belur Math Campus, where now stands a small temple.
Final MessageFive days before her demise, she addressed a grieving lady-devotee of hers thus:
‘Why are you afraid? You have seen the Master... But I tell you one thing: If you want peace of mind, do not find fault with others. Rather, see your own faults. Learn to make the world your own. No one is a stranger. The whole world is your own!’
This can be treated not only as her last message to the world but also as a reflection of the quintessence of her life itself. The first part gives a tremendous assurance to all those who have seen Rāmakṛṣṇa, the Great Master, to be free of all fear by following the path shown. The second part gives us not only the method of attaining such fearlessness but also the end-result of the same. At the outset, it should be understood that ‘finding fault’ does not apply to those cases where love is the driving force behind it and correcting the person is the ultimate goal as in the case of parents or teachers chastising their wards. It applies only to those cases where people find fault with others out of hatred or jealousy or a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude. By not finding fault with others, since ‘to err is human and to forgive divine’ we can keep good human relationship with them.
By discovering our own faults and foibles through calm self-introspection, we will be able to make serious attempts to eliminate them, thereby becoming more agreeable to others. We will look upon others with greater sympathy and understanding. Behind the golden advice that none is a stranger and that the whole world is our own, is the great Vedāntic truth taught by numberless sages over several millennia. If the same ātman or God dwells in the hearts of all including myself, then finding fault with others will tantamount to abusing myself. Once this truth is discovered or the deep conviction developed, the entire gamut of human relationships gets transmuted to a higher plane. This is not that easy as we may imagine. But by trying to learn to practice it we gradually elevate ourselves and others in the truly spiritual sense.
A mother never sees the infirmities of her children. She who could melt the hearts of the robber couple or make a hardened criminal like Amzad behave like a loving son, only she could deliver such a unique message, since she had attained to the status of the Universal or the Divine Mother and reflected it in every word and act of hers. The world at large is yet to learn and act on her message.
If the motherly love inhabiting the hearts of all the mothers in the world were to be put together and churned, the nectar that would issue forth would perhaps approximate to Śāradādevi. Rāmakṛṣṇa left her in this world to uphold the highest ideal of universal motherhood. Her rare insight into the problems of women who were handicapped by obsolescent social customs on the one side and exposure to the modern Western culture on the other hand made her recognize the need for their education and even economic independence. Hence, she was an ardent supporter of Sister Niveditā’s endeavors in the field of educating women. She is certainly the best bridge between the ancient and the modern ideals of womanhood, retaining the best of both.
- Ativarṇāśramin is the one who has transcended all varṇas and āśramas.
- They are the mother and elder brother of Rāmakṛṣṇa.
- Gadādhar, the earlier name of Rāmakṛṣṇa.
- It is a suburb of Calcutta.
- She lived in A. D. 1793-1861.
- He lived in A. D. 1817-1871.
- Nahabat is the music tower where Candrādevī was living.
- Soḍaśī is an exquisitely beautiful aspect of the Divine Mother.
- Hṛday was a nephew of the Master who was also his personal attendant.
- It is present Kolkata.
- It is spelt as Cossipore also.
- He was the future Vivekānanda.
- Later on he became Svāmi Yogānanda.
- Vāmana means the dwarf.
- Abhaycaraṇ was the Holy Mother’s youngest brother.
- Japa means repetition of the divine name.
- Svāmi Śāradānanda was a direct monastic disciple of the Master.
- He is Ramakṛṣna, The Great Master.
- Madras is present Chennai.
- Svāmi Rāmakṛṣṇānanda was known earlier as Saśibhuṣan or Saśi.
- Bilva leaves are Aegle marmelos.
- It is now Ramakrishna Math.
- It is in Vārāṇasī in Uttar Pradesh.
- It is black-water fever.
- It is Headquarters of the Ramakrishna Order.
- Ātman means the Self.
- Amzad was a Muslim laborer, notorious for his nefarious activities.
- She lived in A. D. 1867-1911.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore